Eye in the sky: Environmental monitoring with drones

working with a drone

AK CASC’s Christian Kienholz taught a class at the University of Alaska Southeast titled “Using Drones for Environmental Monitoring.” Together with Eran Hood and Gabriel Wolken, he trained students to use drones for aerial mapping and answer relevant environmental science questions from the maps students created.

During the week-long class, participants planned and conducted several drone campaigns, choosing camera and drone settings appropriate for the task at hand.

They also learned a technique known as Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry, which they applied to model surface topography from photos captured during drone flights. Students were also taught how to use high accuracy GPS equipment to survey ground control points, which are needed to improve the accuracy of drone-derived surface models.

The main class project focused on fluvial erosion above Mendenhall River’s Brotherhood Bridge. Erosion has evolved rapidly in that area, especially since 2018, when Mendenhall River cut off a meander bend during a glacier lake outburst flood. By comparing the data they collected via drone to data from past years, the students determined recent river erosion rates and assessed potential future erosion.

“It was rewarding to teach students a range of new skills and to let them apply these skills to real-world problems in the University’s backyard. I think the course gave students a taste of the work conducted in an environmental consulting firm,” said instructor Kienholz. He hopes the 2019 campaign marked the beginning of a data time series that will be continued in future classes.